Media Matters has done an impressive job, doing that which the corporate media refuses to do: Putting the western wildfires squarely in the context of global warming. More importantly, they've documented the fact that the media is indeed mostly
July 5, 2012

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Media Matters has done an impressive job, doing that which the corporate media refuses to do: Putting the western wildfires squarely in the context of global warming. More importantly, they've documented the fact that the media is indeed mostly ignoring the subject. Gee, I wonder why?

While numerous factors determine the frequency, severity and cost of wildfires, scientific research indicates that human-induced climate change increases fire risks in parts of the Western U.S. by promoting warmer and drier conditions. Seven of nine fire experts contacted by Media Matters agreed journalists should explain the relationship between climate change and wildfires. But an analysis of recent coverage suggests mainstream media outlets are not up to the task — only 3 percent of news reports on wildfires in the West mentioned climate change.

The major television and print outlets largely ignored climate change in their coverage of wildfires in Colorado, New Mexico and other Western states. All together, only 3 percent of the reports mentioned climate change, including 1.6 percent of television segments and 6 percent of text articles.

METHODOLOGY: We searched Nexis and Factiva databases for articles and segments on (wildfire or wild fire or forest fire) between April 1, 2012, and June 30, 2012. News outlets included in this study are ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, The Los Angeles Times,, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. MSNBC and Fox News were not included in this analysis because transcripts of their daytime coverage are not available in the Nexis database.

[...] Of nine fire scientists who responded to email inquiries, seven agreed that journalists should explain how manmade climate change could worsen wildfire risk in certain parts of the western U.S. The other two emphasized other major factors that determine the extent of fire damage, or highlighted the regional and subregional variations that make it difficult to draw broad conclusions.

Steven Running: Media Should Communicate That Fires “Are a Glimpse Into A More Common Future If Carbon Emissions Continue To Rise.” From Dr. Steven W. Running, director of the Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group at the University of Montana:

Absolutely, journalists who care to look at the bigger picture should be stating that we already are seeing an acceleration of western wildfire activity in the last 30yr, and some of that acceleration is tied to the trend of earlier snowmelt and hotter drier summers. And climate models project longer, hotter, and drier summers in the future which will continue to accelerate wildfire activity in the West.

If the media do not connect these dots, the public probably assumes these latest events are only natural variability and “bad luck”, when in reality they are a glimpse into a more common future if carbon emissions continue to rise. [Email exchange, 6/28/12]

Mark Cochrane: Failing To Draw Connections Encourages “View That Each Disaster Is An Independent Event Due To Random Chance.” From Dr. Mark A. Cochrane of the Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence at South Dakota State University:

In my opinion, yes this would be a valid topic for discussion. I would not necessarily blame the current ongoing events on anthropogenic climate change but it is clear that the climate conditions for events such as this are likely to increase in frequency as we move through the century due to anthropogenic climate change. In the last 40 years the mountain west has experienced some of the most rapid warming in the United States. In particular, the southwestern states are expected to experience a net decrease in annual precipitation over the coming decades. Hotter, drier conditions, combined with increased expansion of housing into flammable landscapes means incidents like High Park and Colorado Springs are inevitably going to become more common. Conditions will continue to be variable from year to year but more and more years will have high fire risk in this region.

The consequences of failing to connect the dots between naturally flammable ecosystems, expanding construction and changing climatic conditions will be the continued view that each disaster is an independent event due to random chance, meaning nothing needs to be done. [Email exchange, 6/29/12]

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